Sunday, 28 October 2012

Big Bottom

One of my favourite weekly reads is the NB column on the back page of the TLS, written by "J.C."  This week's issue (26/10/12) continues an ongoing thread about the word "asshole", and British "arse" versus American "ass".  The TLS is a very learned periodical, as you can tell.

Something very disturbing emerged, though, which I thought I should share.  J.C. wrote:

We also asked if the noxious dumb asshole of vulgar insult could be related to the endearing dumb ass of farm and field.  Bottom from A Midsummer Night's Dream, after all, combines the two.  He has the head of an ass and, for a name, the synonym of an ass.
    Or so you might think.  Alastair Fowler, an authority on Renaissance matters and a regular contributor to these columns, writes to say that in the 1590s, "your arse could be your bum, butt, cheeks, croup, prat, rump, seat, stern, tail, toute, backside, buttocks, hurdies or fundament; but before about 1794 it was not your bottom".  So, Professor Fowler, is it the case that puerile giggling at Bottom for his funny name is to see a joke where Shakespeare intended none?  That's correct.  In his latest book, Literary Names: Personal names in English Literature, Fowler writes, "We must give up the notion of Bottom with his arse where his head should be".  The name, he insists, refers to "the spool or nucleus a weaver's thread is wound on".

Whaat?  Say it ain't so!  Personally, I do not give a kick up the hurdies what Alastair Fowler thinks, it simply CANNOT BE TRUE.

The famous Harley Granville-Barker production of 1914

Meanings do change, of course. I was always fond of this early example of product placement in Antony and Cleopatra, spoken by Cleo's waspish handmaiden Charmian:

O excellent! I love Long Life better than figs!

You could have imagined the advertising campaign, but its time is past.  Long Life, I should say for younger and overseas visitors, was a particularly awful beer brewed by Ind Coope in the 60s and 70s ("The only beer brewed specially for the can!  It never varies!" was their proud boast).

But, look, WS wasn't exactly above a bum joke, or a knob joke (see "Will" in various sonnets), or any other kind of crowd-pleaser.  One of my favourite examples is this exchange from Measure for Measure:

ESCALUS:  Come you hither to me, Master tapster. What's your name, Master tapster?
POMPEY:   Pompey.
ESCALUS:  What else?
POMPEY:   Bum, sir.
ESCALUS:  Troth, and your bum is the greatest thing about you.

Oh, Will, Will, you tart... You might as well write the stage direction, "Ride laughter; wait two beats; riposte" before Escalus' final line there.  It's practically a Carry On film joke.

Mind you, if Fowler is right about "bottom" (and he surely isn't) it wouldn't be the first time a well-wrought work of art has acquired new innuendos and inadvertent humour with the passage of time, and changes in usage.  Sticking with Shakespeare, I can remember the hilarity at finding buried yoof and drug culture references in the texts we studied.  When Rosalind, speaking the epilogue the end of As You Like It says, "If it be true that good wine needs no bush, 'tis true that a good play needs no epilogue", it is unlikely WS knew that 500 years later "bush" would become a synonym for "marijuana", causing much nudging at the back of the class.

Usually, it's the other way round (no, not "good bush needs no wine", fool).  There are scholars (from the "Get A Life" school of criticism) who are convinced every other word in Shakespeare is a pun on or synonym for various genital components and sex acts.  I remember vividly, as an innocent lad of 17, taking down a copy of Shakespeare's Bawdy by Eric Partridge from a shelf in our local public library.  I remember it, because a wad of pornographic photographs fell from between its pages, showing real genital components and various sex acts.  There was something slightly cosmic about the contrast between the inky smut-quest on the book's pages, and the lusty reality of that dubious free gift.

That's the Blue Corner.  In the Red Corner we have Thomas Bowdler, who gave his name to the process of "Bowdlerization" (i.e. removing the naughty bits from texts, to spare the blushes and corruption of the impressionable) by producing his Family Shakspeare "in which nothing is added to the original text, but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family".  One of these days I must get hold of a copy, and see what rib-tickling surname Pompey gets to announce in Measure for Measure.

Amusingly, but apocryphally I suspect, some prudish Victorian other than Bowdler is said to have changed this line from Cymbeline:

IMOGEN [reads]: "Thy mistress, Pisanio, hath played the strumpet in my bed"

to "Thy mistress, Pisanio, hath played the trumpet in my bed", which, if anything, is worse, if you are minded to look for double-entendre.

Meanwhile, back in Measure for Measure:

MISTRESS OVERDONE:  Thus, what with the war, what with the sweat, what with the gallows and what with poverty, I am custom-shrunk.
[Enter POMPEY, for it is he]
How now! what's the news with you?
POMPEY:  Yonder man is carried to prison.
MISTRESS OVERDONE:  Well; what has he done?
POMPEY:  A woman.
MISTRESS OVERDONE:  But what's his offence?
POMPEY: Groping for trouts in a peculiar river.
MISTRESS OVERDONE:  What, is there a maid with child by him?
POMPEY:  No, but there's a woman with maid by him.

Every word is plain as day, except one: "peculiar".  It used to mean "belonging exclusively to one person",and now it means "unusual, strange, odd".  Both work, but only the first was intended.  Fundamentally peculiar business, language, at bottom.

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